THEY CALL IT THE BUBBLE. Drivers, crew chiefs, owners, mechanics, officials, p.r. reps, even most of the national NASCAR media live inside this virtual sphere. Each weekend during the season the bubble floats from the green hills around Charlotte, where seemingly 95% of the sport's participants and chroniclers reside, to a racetrack somewhere else. But even during the week, most of NASCAR's movers and shakers rarely venture outside the bubble, as if it were their sole source of oxygen.
Like high school, the bubble is rife with rumors—You notice that team cheating with their splitters last week? You hear who Bob hooked up with in the infield at Talladega?—and inside it every conversation, from garage to five-star restaurant, revolves around one topic: NASCAR. The bubble is a distorted world where the only president who truly matters is the president of NASCAR, Mike Helton, and where rival drivers serve as groomsmen at each other's weddings. But if you don't become a citizen of the bubble, you can't join the traveling circus that is the Sprint Cup Series.
Unless, that is, you're Carl Edwards. On an arctic afternoon in January, Edwards, the 2008 Sprint Cup runner-up known for his victory backflips and his sponsor-friendly grin, is behind the wheel of his 2008 Ford F-350 pickup, cruising down the main drag of Columbia, Mo., 700 miles from the edge of the bubble. Edwards owns a house in Charlotte, but he spends a total of only four weeks a year there. He lives in Columbia, the place that, Edwards swears, gives him an edge over every other driver.
"I don't want to have close friendships with other drivers," says Edwards, the ultimate NASCAR outsider. "I don't want to be thinking about personal relationships when I'm on the track. I'm there for one reason: to win. And I don't want anything clouding my judgment, like, Should I be afraid to race this guy hard because he's my friend? Do I go easy on him? That's a big reason why I don't stay in Charlotte like almost everyone else. I need to get away from NASCAR. And I know I'm faster on Sundays because I spend my time away from racing in Columbia."
If there is one driver poised to prevent Jimmie Johnson from winning a fourth straight Cup championship this season, which starts on Sunday with the 51st running of the Daytona 500, it's Edwards. And NASCAR, with its sagging attendance and TV ratings, desperately needs a driver to step up and be the Pearson to Johnson's Petty. Edwards, 29, is in the pole position to be that challenger. After all, over the 36 races of 2008, he actually scored more points than Johnson (5,236 to 5,220) and won more races (nine to seven). But in the 10-race Chase, Johnson beat Edwards by 69 points to become the first driver in 30 years to three-peat. Edwards senses that he's closed the gap on Johnson—and so does nearly every other driver in the garage.
"Carl is the biggest threat to Jimmie," says Kyle Busch, who won eight races in '08. "Everywhere we go, he can drive the car so yawed out"—meaning with the back end sliding up the track through the turns—"it's unbelievable. He gets more out of the car in terms of speed and fuel mileage than anyone. He'll be very, very strong this year."
The champion himself is more succinct. Says Johnson, "Carl Edwards scares the s--- out of me."
YOU WANT to be scared?" Edwards asks a passenger as he steers his pickup down a dark, empty highway outside Columbia. He's speeding past snow-covered corn and wheat fields at 70 mph, and suddenly he turns off his headlights, making it impossible to see the ribbon of road ahead. "It's like we're in a Twilight Zone episode, man," he says in a low voice as the truck plows through the darkness. As he looks at you, his mischievous pale-blue eyes glow in the light from the dashboard. "So, you scared? Are you?"
This is quintessential Carl. Without question he's the most daring, unpredictable and entertaining driver in NASCAR. "Carl makes more three-wide passes than anyone else," says 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. In the 2008 Chase, Edwards's unmatched aggression nearly won him the championship—but in the end it was the reason why he lost it. Here's a review.
• Kansas Speedway, Sept. 28, Chase race number 3. On the last lap of the race Edwards trails the leader, Johnson, by two car lengths as they head into Turn 3. Instead of easing off the throttle, Edwards holds the gas pedal to the floor. He blazes past Johnson, but then physics takes over: His car climbs the track and slams into the wall, which allows Johnson to pass him and win the race. Edwards, somehow maintaining control after the impact, comes across the line in second. "I planned on hitting the wall," Edwards says after the race, "but I didn't plan on the wall slowing me down that much. I've played a lot of video games where you can just run it into the wall and hold it wide open. That's what I did, but it didn't work out quite the same as a video game." ("There is no way in hell I would have tried that," says Greg Biffle, Edwards's teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "Every driver afterward was like, 'Damn, Carl has got some big f------ balls.'")
• Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 5, Chase race number 4. After hanging in the back of the pack for most of the Amp Energy 500, Edwards and Biffle charge up through the field. Blasting into Turn 3 with only 16 laps remaining, Edwards is in third place when he aggressively bangs the nose of his number 99 Ford into the rear of Biffle's number 16 Ford. Edwards is trying to bump-draft his teammate and give him an aerodynamic push, but their two cars aren't perfectly aligned and both drivers lose control. They hit the wall hard. Had Edwards wound up third instead of 29th, his actual finish, it would have meant another 89 points. The math is simple: If not for this wreck, Edwards likely would have won the 2008 Cup. "I made one serious mistake all season, and it really cost me," says Edwards. "I learned my lesson."
• Lowe's Motor Speedway, Charlotte, Oct. 9, two days before Chase race number 5. Four days after the wreck in Alabama, Edwards confronts Kevin Harvick, who had called him a "pansy" on national TV at 'Dega. The 6'1", 185-pound Edwards, the fittest and most muscular driver in NASCAR—he pals around with pro wrestler John Cena—angrily puts his big hands around Harvick's throat. The two men are quickly separated, but this moment of rage reveals a dark side of Edwards that belies the boy-next-door image that he and his sponsors have cultivated. It's a side that many of his competitors have seen, including his own teammates. In October 2007 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, after bumping and grinding on the track with his teammate Matt Kenseth, Edwards feigned throwing a haymaker at Kenseth's face after the race. Kenseth was visibly shaken. While the two drivers are still collegial at the track, they will never be mistaken for friends. "You never know what you're going to get from Carl," says Kurt Busch, who was Edwards's teammate in 2004 and '05. "Sometimes he's happy-go-lucky, and sometimes the devil horns come out. That makes him a bit of a wild card on the race track."
THE THREE-BEDROOM, two-bathroom house sits on a quiet, tree-lined street in a working-class neighborhood of Columbia. This is where Edwards was raised, and he still calls it home. "See this couch?" he says as he stands in the living room. "We had this the day I was brought home from the hospital. I'm not a guy who likes big changes. This is where I'm most comfortable."
In his five-year Cup career Edwards has won $31 million in prize money and made millions more in endorsements, but this house befits someone who just graduated college and is looking for his first job. The guest room hasn't been painted since 1992, and in Carl's basement bedroom there are mounds of clothes on the floor, piles of books by the fireplace, a guitar by the bed and a unicycle in the corner. Walk 20 paces from the bedroom, through a storage room filled with 10-year-old racing tires and notebooks from his days as a student at Missouri—they're filled with doodles of funky race cars—and you're in his two-stall garage. In his youth Edwards spent more time in here than at school. "This was Carl Edwards Motor Sports world headquarters," he says, laughing. "My dad and I worked on my dirt-modified cars in this garage. This is where it all started."
At age 18, after spending several years wrenching on cars with Carl Sr., who owned a Volkswagen garage and raced on Friday and Saturday nights at dirt tracks around the Midwest, Carl started racing at nearby Capital Speedway, a three-eighths-mile dirt track. By 20, while enrolled at Missouri (he's about a semester short of a degree in interdisciplinary studies), he had won two local titles and had begun hanging out at the St. Louis race shop of Mike Mittler, who owned a truck that he ran in the Craftsman Truck Series. Nearly every day, as Edwards performed odd jobs such as painting the truck and sweeping, he asked Mittler for a chance to drive. In June '02 Mittler finally caved. Edwards's first start was at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he finished 23rd. Two weeks later, at Kansas Speedway, he came in eighth—the first top 10 of the season for Mittler's team. Within a month, a representative from Roush Racing called Edwards, expressing interest in signing him.
That was his big break. Edwards went with Roush, and after spending the '03 and '04 seasons in the Truck Series—he won six races and had 22 top five finishes in 50 starts—he was elevated by owner Jack Roush to the Cup level during the '04 season. Though he had made fewer than five starts in a stock car on pavement, Edwards immediately flashed potential, with three top 10s in his first four starts. "Carl is a natural," Roush says. "Plus, he has that killer instinct that I just love."
Edwards especially flourishes in NASCAR's newly configured race car, which was rolled out full time in 2008. While most drivers complain that they can't get the car to turn through the corners because its back end slides so far up the track, Edwards relishes it because it reminds him of racing on the Missouri dirt. "This new car definitely favors Carl's driving style," says Bob Osborne, Edwards's crew chief. "We all believe Carl is ready to do big things."
EDWARDS IS doing a big thing right now: He's behind the controls of his Cessna Citation 525 jet, taking off from an airfield near Columbia. He earned his pilot's license after watching Top Gun when he was 17—he also owns a stunt plane and a Piper Cub—and he's now the only driver in NASCAR who flies solo to every race. "I love getting in my airplane after races and flying home, because the solitude allows me to relax, to unwind," he says. "Plus, if I need to be in the shop in North Carolina, I can leave my house and be in a meeting there in 2 1/2 hours. Without a plane, it would be hard for me to be in Columbia."
Around Columbia (pop. 85,000), Edwards is an A-list celebrity. He does a weekly radio show on a local station, and whenever he strolls into Key Largo Fitness, his regular gym, so many people shake his hand that you'd think he was the mayor. Edwards is a workout fiend, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. During test sessions at tracks he runs up and down the bleachers during lunch, and he can often be spotted jogging through the infield on race weekends. At Key Largo, Edwards, who rarely drinks and doesn't smoke, lifts and does cardio work with a group of Columbians nearly every day he's home.
"Carl is one of us," says Mike Mazzarisi, a minor league umpire who is one of Edwards's workout partners. "Being here allows him to get away from NASCAR. He needs that. He gets recharged here."
Edwards's younger brother, Kenny, owns a house on his street, and their mother, Nancy, lives a few miles away. On a recent morning Carl stopped by her place to help remove several squirrels from her attic. "I'm hungry, Mom," he said as he walked in the door.
"How about an egg sandwich?" she replied.
"That would be awesome, thanks, Mom."
So this is the real reason Edwards stays in Columbia: his family, which has recently grown. On Jan. 3 he married Kate, a physician at a rehab facility in Columbia. They took their vows at a local church before nearly 1,100 people, not a single Cup driver among them (though, Edwards hastens to add, several sent gifts and/or donations to a charity he and Kate had designated). Carl and Kate went to high school together and reconnected in the summer of 2006 when they bumped into each other on a bike trail. He had dated Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard several years ago, but she wasn't from a certain place: Columbia.
HOLD ON!" Edwards yells from his seat in the cockpit. "We're coming in hot." At 4,000 feet above Rockingham, N.C., he makes his jet plunge toward the earth. An alarm sounds in the plane, and an automated voice shouts, "Pull up! Pull up!" Two passengers are white with fear as the plane bounces through turbulence. Then the thought occurs that Edwards gets off on this kind of thing—the darkened headlights, the bounces off the wall, the dust-ups with other drivers, this kamikaze landing—and that this is what makes him such an effective race car driver.
Moments later, relief: Edwards nonchalantly executes a perfect landing. He hops out of his jet and slides into a rental car, which he'll drive to a test session at Rockingham Speedway. But in a few hours he'll be back up in the air, flying alone toward home.
"I DON'T WANT TO BE THINKING ABOUT PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AT THE TRACK," SAYS EDWARDS. "I'M THERE FOR ONE REASON: TO WIN."
"YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO GET FROM CARL," SAYS KURT BUSCH. "SOMETIMES THE DEVIL HORNS COME OUT."
"I NEED TO GET AWAY FROM NASCAR," SAYS EDWARDS, "AND I KNOW I'M FASTER ON SUNDAYS BECAUSE I SPEND MY TIME AWAY FROM RACING."
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PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT LESIEUR/REUTERS
FLIP SIDE Edwards, here celebrating one of his nine wins of 2008, has a media-friendly image that belies his ruthless competitiveness.
GETTING A LIFT Edwards flies himself to races and never neglects the daily workouts that have made him NASCAR's fittest driver.
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JOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
RUN AND HIT Aggressive driving earned Edwards (99) more wins than Johnson (48) in 2008, though his 'Dega demolition derby (center) led to a brawl with Harvick.
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COLUMBIA KID Edwards, here with some well-worn racing souvenirs beside his house, never tires of his hometown.